Disney for Grown-ups


Disney: of course it’s not just for children. Someone has to pay the way and play the grownup, right?

Well, sort of.

Jennifer Ramsey is no stranger to Walt Disney’s wonderful world of fantasy in Florida. She visited yearly with her family growing up (and still does!) Most of the year, she’s a Founder, Managing Partner, and Lead Designer at SOMMA Studios, LLC, in Portsmouth, which is why she can’t totally separate herself from that during vacation. And why would she want to? It makes life interesting.

Walt Disney World is 40 square miles of opportunity to craft your own vacation– as lazy or as active as you choose to make it. As a destination seen through the eyes of a designer, consider this, Walt Disney World is, at its base, a planned community. From a dream, its design and conception, this property has become known as Lake Buena Vista, Fla. It has its own zip code, its own municipality, utilities and amenities. It is, in a way, a very engaging story of community development.

So in brief, it’s not a theme park, it’s a carefully constructed series of events and experiences that take you away from your daily routine.

That aside, despite the fact that Walt Disney World is often and greatly associated with a place for kids, hundreds of thousands of adults choose to vacation there every year. Their entire staff (cast members, in this case) are incredibly well trained to provide the level of service an adult would expect at any 5 star resort. A good comparison would be to look at some of the best animated films. A great animated film is one that not only keeps the kids giggling but is also tied together by a ribbon of nuances that only adults understand, relate to and enjoy. Disney movies are among the top to fit this bill and their resort properties meet that same bar.

And in case you wonder how California differs from Florida, or vice versa, Jen knows. Disneyland may have been Walt’s first foray into creating a family experience-an escape, but he truly executed his dream a Walt Disney World. It was an idea born of needing space and specific terrain to craft the environment. Florida provided these things.

And how has the Disney landscape changed from the vantage point of a 10-year-old from as a grown woman? I think it’s having a more complete understanding of what goes into making something this vast, this comprehensive work seamlessly on a daily basis. I’m sure an a youngster I never thought about those things. But now as an adult, and as a design professional, who has to consider everything from the buildings massing in context to trash removal, I see the entire production through new eyes. It’s a different kind of awe.

Well, then, do you incorporate any Disneyesque philosophies in your life or in your work? We always consider the stage we are creating. Design is creating the backdrop for life to happen; experiences to be had, memories made. It’s all of ‘this stuff’ that surrounds us. It’s there you take it for granted generally, but every once in awhile it strikes you.

How does one look at Disney with an architect’s eye? There are these terms that people throw around, including myself, most often with a negative connotation. Disneyfication or Disneyfy. The reference is toward any large development, a trivial tourist haven, something bogus and culturally imposed or a fakery. It certainly has its place and when used properly can drive home a point. However, I see a story in the buildings of Disney. Walt was an artist at heart. He could draw cartoons and imbue them with such life you could almost hear it coming off the page. He was a storyteller. It’s the oldest form of art. We drew on cave walls to explain ourselves. I think what has been done at Walt Disney World is another form of the same. I will never live in the Victorian era, or experience the Atlantic City Boardwalk, but I can walk into a building, hear the music of the era, see ornate details, colors and textures and get a sense of what that could have been like.

This one might be easy: What do you think are the most important tenets of Disney World design? Creativity and imagination. They have a mission statement, ‘To make people happy’. I think they achieve that by never letting an idea reside in the impossible.

If SOMMA were commissioned to design any part of Disney World, which would it be and why? I have hospitality in my blood. It would have to be a hotel perhaps a place where Jay Gatsby would have thrown fabulous parties.

Favorite Disney character? Well, this will come as a surprise, as she not a furry character. I’ve always loved Hayley Mills in any Disney film.

Favorite Disney movie? I’m going to throw you another curve ball-again it’s not all about the animation (or the Mouse!). ‘Summer Magic’, a 1963 movie about a Boston widow who moves with her children to a small town in Maine. How’s that for bringing it all full circle?

Do you think you’ll go to Disney annually for the rest of your life? Or will you outlast Disney? We have a family tradition. I hope it lasts.

Some books I highly recommend, both to those in the design industry and anyone who has an interest in a story of business and successes:

Building a Dream, The Art of Disney Architecture by Beth Dunlop

Designing Disney, Imagineering and the Art of the Show by John Hench

This last one is a must for an engineering mind or anyone who has spent time on a job site. What Would Walt Do? An insider’s story about the design and construction of Walt Disney World by D.M.Miller

SOMMA Studios is a design firm based in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. Our specialty is building design with a focus on residential; new homes, additions, renovations and urban living. design@SOMMAstudios.com,

603.766.3760 ext. 12.